The Influence

Keri Hulme’s The Bone People was the first book Melissa Lucashenko read that centred on an Indigenous voice. By Maddee Clark.

Melissa Lucashenko

Writer Keri Hulme signing a copy of her novel The Bone People, and Melissa Lucashenko (below).
Writer Keri Hulme signing a copy of her novel The Bone People, and Melissa Lucashenko (below).
Credit: DPA / Alamy (above), LaVonne Bobognie Photography (below)

Melissa Lucashenko is a Bundjalung novelist, essayist and activist who lives between Brisbane and northern New South Wales. She has been publishing work since 1997 and has won the Miles Franklin Literary Award (2019), the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction (2019) and a Walkley Award in 2013 for her nonfiction. She is a founding member of the organisation Sisters Inside, which advocates for women in prison and their families. She is appearing at the Blak and Bright Festival in Melbourne this weekend.

Lucashenko has chosen to discuss the Booker Prize-winning novel The Bone People by Keri Hulme.

Tell me about this book.

It is the story of Kerewin Holmes, a Māori woman who lives in a remote coastal part of the South Island of New Zealand. It’s a book about family, love, disability and patriarchy. It is also about Māori language and Māori culture.

The protagonist is a fair-skinned Māori woman who was disconnected from her family, but she’d been raised in culture, and she was a hermit who built herself a stone tower. So it almost has threads of the fantastical within it, drawing on Catholic imagery and Māori legend. There’s a lot about disability because there’s a character who in hindsight I would say is autistic, but they never name it as such. It’s a book about reconciliation, about how Pākehā can live in New Zealand, what’s the responsibility of Māori to Pākehā, the role of the church, fishing, what it is to be Indigenous, how to reconcile after family’s been ripped apart.

It was very much ahead of its time, and many mainstream publishers rejected it because it was too different. Hulme said in the foreword that she was going to chuck it out in despair, but a small feminist grassroots collective called Spiral Collective had recently formed, who were made up of Pākehā women as well as Māori. They got the resources together and published it.

The first edition sold out in three days in New Zealand, it went on to win the Booker Prize in 1985, and has never been out of print since then.

I read it when I was 22, so it must have been about 1990. It was recommended to me by an American friend, and I read it and was absolutely knocked sideways. It was the first book that completely spoke to me. I used to read it obsessively in my 20s, to the point where I was worried that I unconsciously plagiarised a couple of lines. The last time I read it was about four or five years ago.

The book uses a lot of te reo Māori, and she has included a glossary in the back. I don’t know if writers like Patricia Grace or Witi Ihimaera were writing with a lot of language in their books at the time, but if they were I wasn’t aware of their work then, so it was the first book that had a lot of Indigenous language in it that I’d ever read.

The first few pages are a little bit obscure. I have recommended it to mob here, some of the brilliant Aboriginal feminist women, and some of them haven’t been able to get past the first part, before it shifts into a more conventional storytelling format. That’s always stayed with me too, the fine line that we’ve got to walk between literary fiction that experiments with form and is a bit out there, and the need to reach your grassroots readers. The readers have to be prepared to put in a little bit of effort, to bring something to the table. So there’s always gonna be people that your work doesn’t reach, I suppose that’s something you have to learn to live with.

It would be a brave act to write a weird book as an Indigenous person at that time.

She was an odd bod. I met her in 1997. I was living in Tonga at the time, in Nuku’alofa, and I got flown back for my first ever writers’ festival, which was Festival of the Dreaming in Sydney. Rhoda Roberts organised it.

I was a newbie author, my book Steam Pigs had just come out. I knew Keri was at the festival. Somehow I found out which room she was staying in. I went and slipped a note under her door introducing myself and saying, “I’d love to meet you.” Anyway, there was no response for a day. And then a second day, no response. So I sort of girded my loins and went and banged on her bedroom door. And this big voice boomed out: “Who’s there?”, like the troll under the bridge. I just knew from her writing that she was fierce, and that I would have to be fierce too. So I just yelled back, “Melissa Lucashenko!” And we ended up having a couple of beers. That was the best possible way for me to start my writing career.

I would have been too shy to do that. What did you talk about?

I probably wouldn’t approach someone like that today. She was a superstar, but also a very ordinary, humble person. She wanted to talk about writing. One thing I do remember discussing was Alan Duff’s book Once Were Warriors with her and saying that I tended not to like books where main characters die by suicide. She looked at me and she said, “I tend to hate them.” It turned out her sister had died by suicide. I give Duff kudos for talking about the hard stuff, but I also think that you’ve got to leave your readers with a path forward; I draw a hard line on that. You don’t take your readers down a dark road and abandon them there.

What have you tried to implement in your own work that you’ve learnt from Keri Hulme?

Honouring and centring the Indigenous voice and being really uncompromising about that. Her main character in this book is very strong, fiercely intelligent, flawed, proud and culturally skilled. There’s no attempt to make her into anything else. That’s the beautiful character development in the book. There’s also the idea that your white readers can fend for themselves a little bit. This idea that you can push people culturally and it doesn’t have to be the end of the world. It took me a long time to get there, probably until about 2013 when Mullumbimby came out, and that’s the first book of mine which has a substantial amount of language. I also put a glossary in the back, which I didn’t do with Too Much Lip, but I always try and make it obvious from the context what I’m talking about. I don’t deliberately set out to mystify readers.

Many readers of my work, and of The Bone People as well, didn’t realise until they got to the end of the book that there was a glossary. It’s like, you do the work, and then you get the information, which is a very Aboriginal way to go about it.

She autographed a copy of the book for me, so I went away feeling like I had her blessing. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 19, 2022 as "Melissa Lucashenko".

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Maddee Clark is a Yugambeh writer and editor.

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